At most colleges across the country, white students outnumber people of color. At historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), though, white students find themselves in a somewhat rare position: They’re the minority.
Because of this, white students may wonder what life would be like at an HBCU.
An Overview of Experiences
First, we should be clear that HBCUs have never discriminated against any race. White students have always been welcome — as have those of other races and ethnicities. HBCUs exist because, historically, black students were not allowed to take classes at predominantly white institutions (PWIs).
Second, white students tend to have great experiences at HBCUs. Don’t take my word for it; the evidence confirms this observation. An insightful interview between University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman and white HBCU graduate and scholar Rob Shorette provides firsthand credence to this claim. Rob is quite candid about his experiences.
And it’s not just this single interview. I’ve conducted original research that documents white students’ positive experiences at HBCUs. Together with my colleagues Robert T. Palmer and Dina C. Maramba, I’ve interviewed many white graduates from HBCUs whose accounts will form the basis of a study to appear in a 2016 issue of the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice. Currently, we are writing a second study with a new set of interviews, which will be submitted to another journal.
If you are a white student considering an HBCU, there are four experiences our research shows you can expect to have:
1. Unlimited Participation
You will have full freedom to participate in aspects of college life. No position is off limits to white students. This includes being named a student government leader, valedictorian, homecoming king or queen, a fraternity or sorority member, or a member of a sports team. White students we interviewed filled all of these roles.
2. Positive Faculty Relationships
We spoke with many white students who reported positive faculty relationships. In fact, they said professors often reached out proactively. Although you, as a student, still need to seek out instructors when you need assistance, our research suggests that HBCU faculty tend to demonstrate care, concern, and availability that makes the process of getting help much less daunting than at many other universities.
3. Broadened Racial Perspectives
One of the most exciting findings from our research is that white HBCU students reported broadened racial perspectives. Specifically, they developed a more complex understanding of race and ethnicity because they learned about the diversity within the majority black student body.
It’s easy for one group to assume that the characteristics of another set of people are the same. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I’m a Republican, country music lover, or nature lover. Actually, I do love running long distances on trails and in the mountains, but I also love the indoors! Moreover, neither Republican politics nor country music is to my taste. You’d have to get to know me if you want to know me.
The same goes for black HBCU peers. Politics, religion, economic and academic background, gender and sexuality, preferences for entertainment, sports, food, and so forth, are as diverse in the black community as they are among whites. Spending four years at an HBCU will afford you the chance to experience the unifying aspects of “black culture,” while also introducing you to the wonderful mosaic of black individuals. You’ll be changed into a wiser person as a result of this broadened perspective.
4. Lasting Pride
Alumni of HBCUs are known to be proud of their alma mater. Institutional pride is one of those unwritten, undocumented traditions that simply define many HBCU graduates. The white students we interviewed felt the same way.
You can go to college anywhere — but what you may have trouble envisioning now is how good your broad experiences, deep relationships, and enduring pride will feel after graduation.
There are many more resources available online to help you make your decision about attending an HBCU, including:
- Six Reasons to Attend an HBCU
- HBCUs Are More Diverse Than You Think: A Look at the Numbers
- Consider the Source
- Consider the Source — Part II
Of course, the best way to answer your questions is by drawing on firsthand experience. Search for HBCUs, and contact students to talk about their experiences. You can also reach Noodle Experts by asking a question through your Noodle account.
Arroyo, A.T. (2014, March 18). Consider the source: An open letter to my future college going friends. MSIs Unplugged: The real story of minority serving institutions. MSIs Unplugged.
Arroyo, A.T. (2014, July). Consider the source, Part II. An open letter to my White college-bound friends. MSIs Unplugged: The real story of minority serving institutions. MSIs Unplugged.
Arroyo, A.T., Palmer, R.T., & Maramba, D.C. (in press). Is it a different world? Providing a holistic understanding of the experiences and perceptions of non-Black students of historically Black colleges and universities. Journal of College Student Retention.
CNN. (2008, July 6). White valedictorian: A first for historically Black Morehouse [Video file]. Retrieved from YouTube.
Davis, M. (2009, May 19). White Miss KSU at her ‘dream college.’ Lexington Herald-Leader. Retrieved from Kentucky.com.
Gasman, M. & Shorette, C.R. (2012). Being white at a Black college: An interview. Huffington Post. Retrieved from Huffington Post.